Behind The Bar With Joel Lee Kulp

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While most folks don’t see their first barstool until college years, bartender Joel Lee Kulp landed on his during his single-digit years when he’d visit bars with his father, stepfather or grandfather. “I think this is where my fascination with bars and bar culture began,” he says. Still, the Pennsylvania native didn’t touch booze until he was just shy of legally being able to, when curious friends and a 1960s Esquire Bar Manual came into play. “We would often drive out of town in the hopes of finding some of the items we’d never heard of,” he recalls. “I still remember finding a bottle of Martini & Rossi Bianco vermouth at a random state store.” His vermouth tastes have evolved since then, as evidenced by his classic and original cocktails at both of his Brooklyn bars: Grand Ferry Tavern and The Richardson. Here, we chat with Kulp about his respect for regulars, what he’s drinking post-shift, and the bourbon they’re serving up at Grand Ferry Tavern that you won’t find anywhere else (literally — anywhere else).

BoozeMenus: How have you approached the drinks list at Grand Ferry Tavern as compared to The Richardson?

Joel Lee Kulp: The biggest difference in the beverage program development is keeping in mind the rest of our offerings. At The Richardson, guests may also be partaking in a plate of charcuterie and cheese while at Grand Ferry Tavern they may be starting with oysters, then moving on to blue cheese fondue and finishing with the wild mushroom shepherd’s pie.  Both guests will be bouncing all over our lists, from cocktails to beer back to cocktails and onto wine, but they may be looking for different things to go along with whatever else they may be enjoying.

BM: What do you most appreciate about the drinking scene in Brooklyn?

JLK: I definitely can’t speak for the entirety of the fourth largest city in the country, but I can speak to our particular neighborhood of North Brooklyn, and I would say, “community.”  Whether it’s between guests, front-of-house folks, back-of-house folks or owners, there has always been a real sense of “regular-ness” here. Being a regular and having regulars is one of the most important parts of any bar or restaurant, but I do believe that sense is more heightened in our little neck of the woods, especially as our neighborhood expands and grows so rapidly.

For example, I was a regular guest to bartenders at Diner back when it opened in 1999.  As Andrew’s empire has grown, I now interact with some of those same people in his newer places, like Reynard and Marlowe. When we were building The Richardson in 2007, my good friend Danny Minch was building Walter Foods while our friend Jud Mongell was building Five Leaves. We all opened for business within months of each other, and I am still sitting at both of those bars on a regular basis.  With the opening of Grand Ferry Tavern, we are now seeing old regulars of The Richardson becoming new regulars of Grand Ferry Tavern as people begin to move all over the neighborhood.  The common story being, “When we first met, she lived up the street from The Richardson and we would go there all the time on dates.  We got married last year and moved to the southside and haven’t been back to The Richardson, but now we have a new place to go on dates right down the street from our house again!”

BM: What was the motivation for creating your own house bourbon with Wild Turkey, and what was the creation process like?

JLK: Our relationship with Wild Turkey really stemmed from the great bourbon shortage of 2014 — simply put, bourbon is more popular than ever and the stocks are depleting fast.  Everyone has been backing them up for years in anticipation, but you have to remember, bourbon takes time, and great bourbon takes even more time.

We had been serving our own single barrel Buffalo Trace at The Richardson since 2009.  Our plan with Grand Ferry Tavern was to offer single barrel Old Weller Antique. It was a grand plan and we were flush with wonderful whiskey for a while, but in January 2014, Buffalo Trace stopped offering a single barrel program altogether and actually switched all of their line-up to an allocation process.  It was fine for serving a few glasses of bourbon, but The Richardson now needed to find a new source for nearly 1,000 bottles of bourbon for 2014 — people love our Old Fashioned.

Enter Wild Turkey!  Always having been huge fans of Wild Turkey, we were able to work out a structure with them that gave us enough bourbon to satisfy our guests, and begin working on a special bottling — something our guests would not be able to get anywhere else. We were offered the opportunity to select our own private barrel of Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, a nine year bourbon bottled at 110-proof.  We visited Master Distiller, Eddie Russell, in August of 2014 to taste through a few select barrels of Russell’s Reserve Bourbon.  That’s where we found Barrel #69, coming out of the barrel at 115-proof. Eddie agreed, it was the finest bourbon we’d tasted all morning — and it was only 11am.

With our stocks dwindling, we are now anxiously awaiting the arrival of our next barrel: Barrel #91!  Eddie Russell hand selected this one for us based on everything we had discussed when we found Barrel #69 — we want bourbon that tastes like you are sitting on the porch of Warehouse A watching the grass grow.

BM: What's a fond story behind one of the cocktails?

JLK: I am huge fan of Rhum Agricole and love to find new ways to share it with people. This is quite often impetus for a great cocktail idea! Simple in mixture and ingredients, I am very privy to a classic Cuba Libre, with the right rum, the right cola, fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters — it is not simply a rum and coke, as so many would have you think. I took to mixing my Cuba Libre with 100-proof Rhum JM White and calling it Vive Martinique. The general reaction from guests was that of disinterest.  “Oh.  Well, that’s just a rum and coke.” Can’t win them all!

BM: Which cocktail has your name written all over it?

JLK: The Black Wing, for sure. The drink originated over the course of many mornings around 4am in the opening months of The Richardson. Trying not to drink a lot of beer late at night, but still needing refreshment after such long hours, I started drinking ginger beer, but I needed big flavors — and alcohol. So I started pouring Cruzan Black Strap on top of the ginger beer, and it doesn’t really mix.  So I would essentially be sipping straight, cold, dark rum as ginger beer would slowly sneak its way through the ice.  A shot of Fernet in my hand was kind of ubiquitous at that point and I soon discovered that all the tastes in my mouth were grand!  For the non-4am version, we ended up floating the rum atop the ginger beer and then floating the Fernet atop the rum.  I, personally, still like to sip from the top, then sip ginger beer from the straw, as it keeps the flavors very strong.  A fellow bartender named the drink after a Danzig song and that was that!

BM: What ingredient - spirit or otherwise - has really grown on you over the years?

JLK: I was bit by the agave bug during a trip to Mexico last year. We were guests of Fortaleza and Casa Noble tequilas and visited eight distilleries over the course of three days. It is a fascinating spirit from a fascinating land — with its terroir, its connection to agriculture, it’s sense of “place.” And I haven’t been able to get enough or stop learning about it.

BM: What time do you wake up in the morning, and what's the first thing you get done? 

JLK: Hopefully 8am. Hopefully a run.

BM: When's the last time you were inspired by a drinking experience?

JLK: Drinking Negronis with Gaz Regan at Cocktails in the Country a few weeks ago.  It’s a bit of a “bartending retreat” hosted by Bartending Guru, Gaz Regan, a little ways up the Hudson. Chatting with Gaz about what, how and why we do what we do is always a great time. We share very similar views on service and our role, not only behind the bar, but in the lives of those around us.  Time spent with Gaz is time well spent, indeed.

BM: Who is your favorite person to fetch drinks with and what are you drinking?

JLK: My wife. We are probably drinking pink wine. It’s probably from France. 

BM: What do you crave post-shift? 

JLK: Beer. Everyone craves beer post-shift — everyone.

By Nicole Schnitzler

(From Left: Black Wing Cocktail at Grand Ferry Tavern by Michael Tulipan; Joel Lee Kulp courtesy of Grand Ferry Tavern; Martiniquais Cocktail at Grand Ferry Tavern by Michael Tulipan)

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